Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Chewing My Own Arm Off

I have had another major realization today. I think I am trying to do too much. Not in the sense that I have a take-home job, two small kids, a puppy and am now coaching track.

I mean I am trying to cover too much material. Should my kids in high school astronomy be able to cover the same amount of material that I did in my masters astronomy?

My answer yesterday, apparently, would have been "Yes." Today, however, I am not so sure.

My four earth science classes are up for review by the Board of Regents. Since they are not titled "Biology", "Chemistry" or "Physics," this means I have to make a list of the major concepts covered in each trimester. I am limited as to the number of concepts I can submit, mostly because the BOR doesn't seem to want to read through every objective I have for the class.

The realization came as I was trying to summarize my Ocean Science unit on Currents. Again, trying to decide what is critical is the major hurdle I am trying to get around. I have fallen into the bear trap of trying to touch on everything while not actually covering any subject in depth.

Friday, March 26, 2010

What Are Grades?

Think Thank Thunk has a great question for you today.

Our most recent dis­cus­sion had a lot to do with what grades mean. More specif­i­cally, the ques­tion of whether soft skills like punc­tu­al­ity or being nice should be included as a part of a student’s grade. In our group there are basi­cally two camps:
  1. Grades should reflect a student’s progress with course mate­r­ial. Where an A+ indi­cates mastery.
  2. Grades should be an amal­gam of a student’s knowl­edge, behav­ior, and any­thing else the teacher wants to control.

My new obsession with Standards Based Grading has forced me to take a long, hard look at what I teach and assess in my classroom. When a student walks away from this trimester with an A in my Astronomy class, what does that mean?

Does it mean she has hurriedly copied yesterday's homework in the bathroom before school?

Does it mean he has finally stopped saying f*ck in my class?

Or does it mean she can identify the elements fusing in the core of a star by interpreting its absorption spectra?

There are a lot of things I have to do to get ready for class every day. Once I determine what to teach, I have to plan out my lesson. I have to determine the best way to deliver that lesson. How can I supplement that lesson? Should I do a lab? Do I have a lab? If not, then I need to find one. Or write my own. Then I need to have enough copies for each kid. Have I looked far enough ahead to see any problems we might run into? Better have all the supplies ready.

Do I get credit for each one of these steps?


What matters is whether or not I have it ready to go at 10:44 Tuesday morning. It's the end product that counts. Sometimes you have to do quite a bit that doesn't count individually, but is a part of a greater whole. Sometimes, you do the homework so you understand the material. If you already get it, is it a waste of time, energy and good pencil lead to do #1-31 odd?

We have such a big hang up with preparing kids for jobs. Does your job require you to turn in homework everyday? I have to have lesson plans for each day, but ultimately, those are to make my end product better* and not for use by anyone else.

And does grading on these skills truly prepare kids for the real world? Kids are smart. They know how to play the game. They know which class they can wear a hat. They know which teacher will allow them to bring a snack into class. They know when they can get away with texting. They also know what their boss is willing to put up with.

And they act accordingly. They know how to play the game.

I expect my kids to come in (without a hat) and be respectful to me and everyone else in the room. They do not get a grade for manners, but my expectations are clear.

For me, I fall resolutely into the first group.

*I realize some teachers are required to submit lesson plans to their administrator. In my last school, we did, but I had a sneaking suspicion they were stuffed into a drawer somewhere and never seen again.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

SBG Step 2: What to Know

Now that I have learning targets set up for each unit, I am writing a bullet list of exactly what that student must do in order to demonstrate mastery. I struggled with this a lot, but the kids absolutely love it. I can't believe how much anxiety has been reduced in my classroom. They know exactly what they need to learn.

In the future (baby steps, remember) I would like to have a guideline for each target. If you know this...then you get 4 points. If you know that...then you get 2 points. Basically, it would be a rubric on how each target is graded.

Of course, I would love to have that now, but I don't want to have a nervous breakdown. Although, I wonder if they would let me have my notebook in an isolation room... No, definitely a bad idea.

I went and got a separate binder for all of this. Each unit's targets are printed on a separate page with space in between to take notes. The units we have already covered are bleeding red ink. I find that I edit quite a bit as I am grading. Some mistakes are made repeatedly by several students, so I make a note of those misconceptions as well.

If nothing else, this process has really opened my eyes as to holes in my teaching and assessing practices. So far, my kids are on board. Most of the students who have taken advantage of the reassessments have given me postive feedback. I still have a few students who haven't quite grasped the concept of learning the material in order to raise the grade, but overall, I love the change this has brought to my classroom.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

SBG: Step 1

After some calming breaths and a change of scenery, I am re-focused. I am going to focus on the Standards Based Grading and create the framework for that system and then add in Differentiated Instruction as it falls into place. Notice how I am assuming it's all going to fall into place instead of fall apart. "Positive waves, man."*

For each section I teach, I am writing learning targets. This is what I want my kids to demonstrate at the end of the unit. I am struggling a little bit with this. One of the great ideas I came away with Monday was to decide "what is critical". Not what I would really like to teach or what is interesting to learn about, but what is critical for a student in my classroom to come away with. Critical is a pretty strong word, and I am trying to narrow down my topics. I figure if time allows, I can go back and add in some more.

Here's a big step for me...they do not have to be graded on this!

Really. Before I started viciously breaking down my curriculum, I was of the mindset that every little detail I slipped into class time should be tested. Why else would I bring it up? I have, with some internal struggle, changed this view.

I am focusing on what is critical.

So far, my kids have not caught on. (Insert evil laugh)

*Oddball, Kelly's Heroes

Monday, March 22, 2010

I Need a Pensieve

OK. I thought I was ready. Teachers came back today for Professional Development. Our afternoon presenter, Lisa Henderson from Essdack (our co-op), discussed Differentiated Instruction in the Math and Science classrooms. She was phenomemal, so much energy radiated from her that she could have talked about anything and I would have been excited about it. I love presenters like that.

I have been struggling with what DI actually looks like for quite some time now. No person I asked could give me a straight answer, so I changed my concentration over to Standards Based Grading. Lisa came in and not only defined it for me, but actually told me that what I had been doing was on the right track. Whew.

My immediate reaction (as it often is) was to jump in head first with this, too. I started listing all the ways I could implement this into my classroom. Around the second page of scribbled concept maps (that's how I think), alarm bells started going off. I can see myself starting to take on too much. Baby steps. That's the key.

I need to step back and look at all this from a new angle and decide how to move forward. I am not willing to abandon SBG because I love it and it is the middle of the trimester. I want SBG to seamlessly fit into my DI classroom. How to do it? Not sure yet.

I need Albus Dumbledore to loan me his pensieve.* I have so many ideas and thoughts swimming around my head that I can't think straight.

Deep breaths. I need to decide where to start.

*Seriously, read Harry Potter, already. I love that world.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

And We're Back

This last week was Spring Break. Great timing with the weather, too. Like most everyone else, this winter has been cold and depressing. Last week was spring. Well, except for Friday. We started out the day in t-shirts and ended it with four inches of snow on the ground. Bizarre.

I had a lot of things on my To Do list, and precious few got done. I also lost the list somewhere around Tuesday. I was planning on spending a day (or at least a half a day) in my room as a rat-killin' day; cleaning miscellaneous glassware, putting away stray lab equipment, re-organizing my curriculum notebooks, maybe even putting my substitute folder back together (I know, it's almost April).

Didn't happen. I did nothing school related over break. I almost forgot I even had a job. And boy, do I feel good. I feel refreshed. I even feel ready to go back to school. Maybe that's what breaks are for.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Maybe We Should Ask the Kids

My daughter is in the third grade. She spent three days last week taking the state reading assessments. Next week she will spend three days taking the math version.

She's 8.

This morning, she made the comment that there sure was a lot of testing going on in the school lately. I said, yes, it's that time of year. Her concern was "my class hasn't had the laptops in forever." I reminded her that she took her tests on the laptops last week.

"Well, it doesn't count if it isn't learning."

So true.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Wake Up Call

Wow. This is hard.

I have delved into the realm of Standards Based Grading. All I can say is...Wow.

Last summer, our district put the science departments through a curriculum writing process. The idea, of course was to see if what we were teaching lined up with the state standards. Our Subject Area Committee (SAC) consisted of all middle school and high school teachers as well as representatives from the elementary schools. It was definitely an eye opener. I had read the standards and thought I was doing what I was supposed to. I was close, but missing several key pieces here and there. I loved the process as it forced me to look at what I was TEACHING.

Now I am immersed in SBG (is that the proper abbreviation?) with my classes. This is really forcing me to look at what I am ASSESSING. Apparently, I am not doing a very good job of truly finding out what my kids actually know. I am also finding out that my objectives that were written this summer are not very clear.

"The student will describe the ecliptic." What in Merlin's name does that mean??? How vague can you get? If I can't define it, how can I possibly expect my kids to show me they have learned anything?


So the first thing I did was write out the objectives for my first Astronomy unit. The second thing I did was write out what that student would have to do to get all four points on that target. I typed these out and gave a copy to each student.

And here was another mind blower for me. As I am writing out what I wanted them to demonstrate, a little voice in the back of my head whispered, "but then, aren't you just giving them the answers?"

Holy Shit!


Seriously. I felt like I had been hit by a truck. I was telling them what I wanted them to know. AND I HAD A PROBLEM WITH IT. Then another little voice (I have several of those apparently) was heard, "isn't this your JOB??" Isn't this the whole point of me spending hours upon hours planning and grading and preparing? Am I not supposed to impart my knowledge onto these young men and women??

Whew. I am not sure how I feel about this epiphany. I have never consciously tried to trick a student into failing, either by not giving all the information or simply writing a bad question.
But apparently, I have not been playing on an even field. I wonder why.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010


Sometimes, things happen that are beyond my control. Sometimes, I think I have a good handle on the situation and that I am making a difference. Then, out of the blue, it hits. I never saw it coming, and was crushed when it did.

One of my students (who is here because he is in foster care) was doing great. He was studying. He was doing his work. His attitude was better than I had ever seen it. Even his conversations with his friends didn't include any hint of illegal activity (believe me, even with my "good" kids, this is uncommon).

He was pulled out of my class the other day for a UA (part of his probation). He failed.


I heard about it at lunch when the secretary asked me for his books. He wasn't coming back. He is going to juvenile detention. A chorus of teachers chimed in "oh, it's about time" and "that kid was nothing but trouble." I actually had to ask who they were talking about. I knew he had troubles and I knew he had challenges that I will never have to face. But when he walked into my classroom, he could be whomever he chose to be. He had been making a conscious effort to succeed. He was looking for someone to throw him a lifeline and pull him out. I can't speak for his other teachers. I don't know what prejudices were held, consciously or unconsciously, that acted against him.

Sometimes there just isn't enough rope.

Good luck, T.

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